William Richardson: Independent schools’ attainment figures are good news for everyone

28 February 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

Sunday Times, 28.02.16, HMC's General Secretary Dr William Richardson on why independent schools’ attainment figures are good news for everyone.

Thanks to the University of Durham, our understanding of school-age education was significantly enhanced this week.

We now have, for the first time, a specific measure of the comparative value that an independent school education adds, regardless of a young person’s background. This is an important contribution to debates about social opportunity and mobility, since it allows decision-making to be better informed. For example, we know that large-scale research into pupil progress, such as Professor Rob Coe’s work at Durham, is a better basis for planning local school support than temporary and ad hoc intervention.

The new research shows that once the social makeup and school characteristics of all children have been accounted for, pupils who attend an independent school in England from before the age of 11 and through to the age of 16 will achieve significantly better GCSE results (0.64 of a grade across each of their best eight subjects) than those attending a state school. This extra value, Professor Coe’s team concludes, is already measurable by the time a child at an independent school is four years old.

What are the implications? For families who decide to pay fees, it will be reassuring to discover that, according to the researchers, they have secured the equivalent of an additional two years of schooling by the time their son or daughter is 16.

But for everyone concerned with education – parents, pupils, teachers, government, civil servants, academy bosses, Ofsted – the research findings pose some nagging questions. How much of this “pure” added value in independent schools is down to the teaching, or down to the resources? Or “character education”, however that might be defined? Or sporting and cultural opportunities? And, crucially, what can be done to close the progress gap?

The Durham researchers say that they cannot explain precisely the reason for the difference that independent schooling makes. However, many independent school leaders say the most obvious contender is the overall quality of teaching and learning, linked to a holistic education that enables every child to develop the confidence to do well, supported by strong parental interest.

It seems likely that this combination of experience, confidence and resilience also explains career and earnings success later in life. It is striking that studies of career progression show – again, after background factors have been taken into account – that adults who previously attended independent schools achieve more highly. This likely connection between childhood progress and later fulfilment underscores just how important it is that every school provides an enabling education for each child.

There is now a huge amount of research being conducted on the relationship between school-age education and life chances. Surely the most important message from the Durham research is that we can’t understand enough about the kind of school environments in which, when all other considerations are accounted for, children’s life chances are enhanced because it is the school itself that has added the value.

This is a hunger for understanding that every parent and teacher should want to satisfy. Cutting-edge studies such as this latest research are central to that understanding, for then, and only then, can policy choices and the allocation of resources be made most wisely and in the light of the best available evidence.

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